November 26, 2008
D I Y
To be more precise, as I write these words, a man named Simon Feil is standing at the corner of 110th and Broadway in Manhattan with a flatbed full of freshly killed broad-breasted white turkeys, waiting for my brother-in-law to come pick one up for our Thanksgiving table.
This year I followed my conscience to Kosher Conscience, an upstart organization Feil, a 32-year-old yeshiva graduate and former mashgiach, founded to provide kosher consumers with a more humane source of dead protein.
Feil's free-range turkeys live out their lives on a farm in upstate New York. Instead of being killed on an assembly line, they are slaughtered according to kosher law one-by-one, unaware of their quickening fate. If you had to end up on a dining table with wild mushroom and leek stuffing where your guts used to be, that's the way you'd want to go.
Feil's list of customers pay dearly for this extra care -- about $7.50 per pound vs. just over $2 per pound for a corporate kosher bird.
The list of start-ups like this is growing: There is Mitzvah Meat, a Hudson Valley co-op raising grass-fed lamb and beef, and Maryland-based KOL Foods (for Kosher Organic Local). There's also talk of a California-based kosher humane venture.
But the news here isn't just about a new kosher food movement. It's about a much larger change than that. Everywhere you look in Jewish life, people are taking it upon themselves to re-think traditional ways of doing things. The kosher humane movement is just one example of how, in our time, the structures of organized Jewish life are being reorganized.
And the powerful force behind all this: Just your everyday, garden-variety Jew -- Joe the Jew, if you will.
It's happening in synagogue life, where so many small, unaffiliated minyans are starting up that a national conference was held last month in New York to analyze and support them. Organizers counted dozens of these nascent not-quite-shuls -- not just in New York and Los Angeles but also in the Midwest and Northwest.
Mainstream synagogues are still home to the majority of affiliated Jews, but those who don't feel at home in a larger synagogue, now don't feel they have to opt out of spiritual life -- they are creating their own smaller structures.
In Jewish philanthropy, too, the one-size-fits-many federation model has veered to smaller, do-it-yourself groups that either raise and distribute funds according to more specific needs or follow a venture capital model.
Sometimes the money originates with a single, idiosyncratic wealthy donor, sometimes with a small group with a specific agenda.
Many of these new entities have decades-old roots in the Jewish identity and renewal movement of the 1970s, which started calling into question the way things were. But the process of change has accelerated and is now widespread.
Technology has helped. The Internet is an effective and relatively inexpensive organizing tool. Many of the new minyans forgo mailings altogether and rely solely on the Web to knit together their congregations. Blogs and online video collapse the distance between Jews, spread new ideas faster and even enable more cost-effective fundraising.
Where all this will lead, no one knows. A new generation of Jews, weaned on what's new and cutting edge, is unlikely to settle comfortably into the boards and pews their parents once occupied.
Some of the changes are faddish and no doubt will be fleeting. Others, like Kosher Conscience, I would go long on. With the ongoing crumbling of Agriprocessors, it's easy to imagine that a larger portion of the kosher-observant Jewish world will stop subcontracting their ethics out to the lowest bidders.
But the success of such small and independent innovations begs three questions.
The first is whether, amidst all this change and diversity, there is a way to keep a sense of connection to the larger Jewish community, even to a larger communal agenda. This isn't just important in times of crisis, as when Israel is in danger, or the economy goes into freefall. There are good things we can only achieve together -- if we can first come together. It's not clear how we do this when 10 friends, some cash and a Web site are enough to create a Jewish world unto themselves.
The second is: How do we institutionalize radical change? Some of these upstart groups and ideas are too good to stay at the margins. It's critical that larger institutions and synagogues pay attention to what's new and incorporate or adapt what seems to be working. Some already have: Federations now have venture capital funds and directed giving, and many synagogues long ago jumped into the smaller minyan model.
But all this newness also begs this third crucial question: What will we leave behind?
The mission was clear for previous generations: They built the brick and mortar of the community. They funded all the parking lots, the classrooms, the social service organizations; they invested their time and labor in the boards and Roberts Rules and banquets -- all that unsexy stuff that is the scaffolding of community. They bequeathed us not just some cool blogs or a minyan to bliss out in, but a community to physically inhabit, to rebel against, to improve.
That's our job, too, not just to change and innovate, but to leave behind something better, something substantial.
It likely won't be actual buildings, but it should be something the next generation can build upon.